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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Gui Sook LEE
Stillness, for piano and percussion (2010) [14:09]
Ostinato in Springtime, for percussion quintet (2009) [10:12]
The Movement, for percussion quartet (2009) [16:37]
Moving On, for flute and percussionists (2007) [13:04]
Refrain, for percussion quartet (2002) [13:57]
Ji Hyun Kim (piano)
Kim McCormick (flute)
McCormick Percussion Group/Robert McCormick
rec. Springs Theatre, Tampa, Florida. No date given. DDD
RAVELLO RR7810 [68:48]

Experience Classicsonline

This appears to be the first CD featuring the music of Gui Sook Lee. Gui Sook is a young Korean composer, though how young exactly neither the CD notes nor the Internet will yield. Although she has Facebook and Twitter accounts, if she does have a website it is most likely in Korean.
The McCormick Percussion Group has a higher profile: they have recorded over 20 CDs under the direction of founder Robert McCormick, who also doubles as percussionist to his flautist wife, Kim, in the McCormick Duo - they too have four discs to their name. At any rate, this Ravello release represents the debut of composer and performers in these review pages.
Unfortunately the CD does not give any information on the instrumentation used in each work. Whilst all 34 instrumentalists of McCormick Percussion are listed by name, none of their instruments are, apart from Gui Sook's own reference in her notes to marimbas. For their soloist roles, the pianist in Stillness and the flautist in Moving On are named separately, but all other players are lumped together as "percussionists", even though there are significant parts for most of them in each of the works.
In fact, there is no CD booklet as such: the case is a cardboard foldout affair, and the liner-notes are printed straight onto the card itself, obviously reducing the amount of space available for information. Gui Sook's comments on her works are jargony rather than illuminating. The lack of notes is exacerbated by the fact that there is nowhere to look the information up - the website of Ravello Records is as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.
As with her better-known compatriot Unsuk Chin, Gui Sook's music is not obviously Korean, and any likeness to regional gamelan music is really in spirit only. But the instrumentation of these five works is certainly exotic in a Far Eastern way, although in the first piece, Stillness, the inclusion of the piano tempers the foreignness. Gui Sook describes it herself as concerto-like in its treatment of the piano, but many listeners may find that rather misleading - the piano generally blends into the percussive narrative, deepening the grain rather than providing contrast. As it happens, Stillness is anything but still - it is a throbbing, brooding, dramatic, often martial work; and very intoxicating.
The minimalistic Ostinato in Springtime, on the other hand, does live up to its title. Gui Sook's description of this piece is a mite optimistic. She says: "The ostinato theme, which recurs consistently throughout the entire composition, is interwoven with other parts that change in meter, tempo, ornamentation, timbre, instrumentation, register, rhythm, pitch and sonority." As true as that may be in a technical way - and it is worth mentioning here that the 'quintet' refers to players; all manner of percussion instruments are employed - the listener is unlikely to be able to escape the feeling that this is a slowish, repetitious piece, and will likely be mystified at the composer's insistence that the ostinato theme is evocative of spring. The four marimbas in unison that open the extravagantly-titled The Movement are similarly "suggestive of a cold snap in winter", according to the composer, and in the middle section, "the tranquil mood [is] reminiscent of a spring breeze". As in the previous piece, the quartet refers to players, but this is much more of a work for marimbas with percussion. The marimbas are silent for a while two-thirds of the way through, for what sounds like the tribal equivalent of an improvised solo for jazz drummer, but otherwise they are always to the fore. This is the longest piece, and some may find time passing very slowly. Nonetheless, the rhythms in both The Movement and Ostinato in Springtime are sure to set any listener's feet tapping, and the overall effect of the music is pleasing to the ears, if not enlightening for the mind.
According to the CD blurb, McCormick Percussion were formed "to explore and record new and unusual works in the percussion idiom", and Gui Sook Lee's music falls easily into this category. Her works written solely for percussion are the least successful on this disc - there is little question that the addition of the piano in Stillness and the flute in Moving On add enormously to the textures and therefore interest of Lee's music. On the other hand, the final work, Refrain, is one of the most exhilarating, with its considerable, and considered, variety of timbre.
Gui Sook Lee does not yet have Unsuk Chin's international profile. There are sporadic references on the internet to music by Gui Sook for more Western-style forces, but her musical ambitions would be helped handsomely if there were more information about her work freely available in English. Meanwhile, this disc makes an excellent starting-point for anyone interested in Eastern composers in particular or attractive contemporary musical exotica in general.
All the music is superbly performed by the McCormick Percussionists and named soloists. Recording quality is very high throughout.

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